Council changes view on cultivation of farmland

The Queenstown Lakes District Council has had a change of heart over allowing the cultivation of land considered to be ecologically important.

Last week, the council told a south Hawea Flat farmer he could plough his land without resource consent, but yesterday, after much of the land had already been ploughed or cleared of vegetation, it said consent could be needed after all.

Concerns were raised last week by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand - along with a Landcare Research scientist, the Clutha Mata-Au River Parkway group, Wanaka landscape architect Anne Steven and members of the public - about the alleged ''unlawful'' clearance of native vegetation on the private land on the true left of the Clutha River, upriver of Kane Rd.

They considered the land should be protected because of its rare and threatened ecosystems.

Forest and Bird acting Otago-Southland field officer Jen Miller wrote to the QLDC requesting the clearance work be stopped until the owner had sought consent.

The landowner referred to in email correspondence between QLDC and Forest and Bird was Dugald Innes, who did not return calls yesterday.

In a letter to the QLDC yesterday, Forest and Bird lawyer Peter Anderson said the clearance activity breached the ecological provisions of the district plan, which the council had an obligation to enforce.

''It has failed to fulfil this obligation.''

Forest and Bird could refer the matter to the Environment Court or the Office of the Ombudsman, Mr Anderson wrote, unless the council instructed the landowner to cease the work and reinstate the site as much as possible.

He acknowledged the council could do very little to rectify the situation, as Mr Innes ''will simply and correctly say, I undertook this activity with the council's approval''.

''That the approval was given in error does not alter the fact that highly significant values have been destroyed.''

Yesterday, council general manager, planning and development, Marc Bretherton told the Otago Daily Times the council had investigated the concerns soon as it was aware of them and a site visit last Thursday confirmed there was no breach of the district plan.

''Acting on the information available and in accordance with legal advice, there was no basis for issuing any form of enforcement proceedings prior to the weekend,'' Mr Bretherton said.

However, after site-specific ecological advice was obtained on Monday, the landowner was contacted yesterday morning and told ''an ecological report and possibly resource consent'' would be required.

''At this point the council became aware that the site had been ploughed. We are still assessing whether any further action is appropriate.''

Ms Miller said once dryland farms were converted to irrigated land for more intensive development, rare ecosystems were lost forever.